Joe Thornton SharksThe puck drops on the Sharks’ Western Conference Quarterfinals battle with the Canucks at 7:30 pm tonight. They’ll have to share the spotlight with not only the Giants-Diamondbacks game but the NBA playoffs as well (anybody care for a rip-roaring battle between Houston and Oklahoma City?!). None of that should stop you from changing the channel to CSN California.

I get it — hockey isn’t the most popular sport in this climate. From the outside, hockey is ignored by ESPN, competing with the NBA on a nightly basis and regarded as “Canada’s sport.” But the Sharks have carved a nice niche for themselves in San Jose. They have a raucous and faithful fanbase, the fingers of which spread all over the greater Bay Area. They’ve been competitive and dominant for years — long before the Giants, 49ers and Warriors became contenders again.

And now they begin their ninth straight playoff appearance, this one in Vancouver. It’s going to be fun, and you should be watching.

The pressure

San Jose has made a few trips to the Western Conference Finals, but they’ve never crossed the threshold to a Stanley Cup Finals before. They’ve been a competitive team for the better part of a decade now, and their core of Dan Boyle, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton isn’t getting any younger. Still, their window is wide open right now. They have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Antti Niemi, scoring threats on three of their four lines and arguably their best defensive core in the last five years. There’s a 22-year championship drought sitting on their shoulders. How this team responds is something to watch for.

The rivalry

The Neutral from Fear the Fin wrote a pretty awesome post about why you should be rooting for the Sharks in which he pointed out pretty much everyone in the NHL hates the Canucks:

In fact, most Canadians outside British Columbia actively cheered against Vancouver because to root for the disgraceful stickwork of Alexandre Burrows, the embarrassing fish-like flopping of Ryan Kesler and the general hideousness, inside and out, of Maxim Lapierre is to conflagrate one’s soul quicker than a wasted Canucks fan (I’m sorry, I mean an unaffiliated anarchist from Kelowna) sets a cop car ablaze. Sure, Kesler’s ESPN photo shoot was pretty funny, Roberto Luongo is better at Twitter than he is between the pipes and Dan Hamhuis has received accolades for his humanitarian work in Haiti. Ignore all of that. I’m pretty sure Hamhuis ate far more children than he helped anyway.

And someone got upset at me for calling Canucks fans “obnoxious.” It seems like every team the Sharks face in a playoff series becomes an enemy, but none quite like Vancouver. San Jose got effectively steamrolled by the Blackhawks in the 2009-10 WCFs, but they had a scrappy, competitive bout with Vancouver the next year. It all ended with this super-fluky freak goal Kevin Bieksa got gifted from the stanchion gods. Then Vancouver threw it all away by collapsing against the Bruins and burning their own city down.

Needless to say, there’s a revenge factor at work here. For the Canucks, they’ll want to repay San Jose for sweeping the regular season series.* For the Sharks, they’ll be thinking of the Western Conference Finals loss.

*They’re also going to try really hard not to embarrass themselves for a third straight year.

The intensity

Like every sport with a long regular season, not every hockey game jumps off the screen. Tired legs take over. You win some, you lose some. There’s always tomorrow.

Not playoff hockey. If you’re enjoying the Warriors playoff run then you’ll love watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the time of year when everything matters. Every check, every penalty and every goal is monumental.

I like to judge the excitement of a game by whether or not I can sit back while I watch it. Nobody sits back to enjoy a Sharks playoff game. Deal with it, guy behind me at The Tank!

The atmosphere

If you’ve never been to a Sharks game and you’ve got some money lying around, Game 3 in San Jose would be a good time to finally check one out. The Tank is deafening for a regular season game — it ramps up to airplane levels for the playoffs. Although playoff shirts never catch on at HP Pavilion (which is really too bad), the rally towels are a goosebump-inducing staple of playoff hockey in San Jose. They wave in a frenzy when the Sharks score, jumping forward in unison for every “HEY!” in the goal song. Check out this fan video of the final seconds of the Sharks Game 7 win over the Red Wings.

It gets loud for the puck drop, louder for the goals, and when the crowd is exploding for every clear, check and fight, I have no doubt you’ll be hooked for life.

Of course, you don’t need to make it to The Tank to feel the atmosphere. Vancouver’s fanbase is no slouch, and they’ll show up for tonight’s bout. Hockey fans know what’s at stake when they show up for a playoff game. The energy of the crowd brings these games to a different level of fun.

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Hockey fans can be a bit cult-like. It’s like they’re underground hip hop fans, terrified their secret gem will become mainstream and suddenly be ruined. I’m not of that class. I think those who don’t follow hockey are missing out on something truly special.

With the Warriors making waves in the NBA playoffs it’s an exciting time to be a Bay Area sports fan, but if you watch the Sharks it’s doubly exciting. Do yourself a favor and flip on the game tonight. You won’t be disappointed.